The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recently announced its intent to update regulations governing its management of oil and gas activities on national wildlife refuges.  The proposal responds in part to a March 2015 report by the Inspector General of the Department of the Interior, which called management of oil and gas development “inconsistent, and at times, nonexistent” due to lack of data about the locations and operational statuses of drilling wells and drilling infrastructure.

The national wildlife refuge system comprises over 560 additional protected areas—which collectively span over 150 million acres—that have been similarly set aside for federal protection.  While oil and gas drilling is generally banned in these areas, some refuges include lands that were transferred from private ownership to the federal government without a concordant transfer of mineral rights.  In such circumstances, owners of mineral rights may conduct drilling operations.  Currently, oil and gas operations take place on over 100 wildlife refuges.

According to FWS, the proposed standards are “designed to provide regulatory clarity and guidance to oil and gas operators and refuge staff, provide a simple process for compliance, incorporate technological improvements in exploration and drilling technology, and ensure that non-Federal oil and gas operations are conducted in a manner that avoids or minimizes impacts to refuge resources.”  The proposed rule is intended to implement the recommendations made by the Inspector General in his report, urging the Agency to (1) determine how to use special permits to improve accountability of operations; (2) improve procedures and training to ensure consistent application of regulations; (3) develop policies to ensure that FWS is notified when well and lease ownership is transferred; (4) explore requiring bonds that could be used for plugging inactive wells; and (5) develop a plan for obtaining, verifying, maintaining, and regularly updating oil and gas well and related infrastructure data. Report at 13-14.

If adopted, the proposed standards would expand FWS’s role in managing oil and gas development on refuges. FWS claims the new rules will minimize the impacts of drilling, including by assuring that non-producing wells are properly plugged, that spills are promptly reported and contained, and that equipment designed to reduce the rate of spills is better maintained and monitored.  The Agency published the proposed rule in the Federal Register on December 11, 2015, and comments will remain open until February 9th.